Egypt dissidents want Obama to push Arab democracy



CAIRO, Samer al-Atrush - US President Barack Obama's choice of Egypt for making a key address to the world's Muslims has come under fire from reformers, dismayed that he has chosen a country with a poor human rights record.
Obama plans to use his much-anticipated address on Thursday to improve relations with the Islamic world, where the image of the United States has been battered over an unpopular war in Iraq and perceived bias towards Israel.



Egypt dissidents want Obama to push Arab democracy
But critics say his choice of Egypt, with its poor rights record and an arsenal of laws that can punish dissidents and journalists, rewards an authoritarian government.
Obama's push for better relations with Arab and Muslim governments, often strained during predecessor George W. Bush's eight years in office, risks marginalising reformers, they say.
"The place is the message," democracy activist Saed Eddin Ibrahim, who lived in self-imposed exile in the United States, told AFP.
"To give his first speech in an autocratically run country will give legitimacy and support to a mode of governance that we must object to."
On his trip to the Arab world's most populous nation, Obama is not scheduled to meet with pro-democracy campaigners.
However, Egypt's best-known dissident, Ayman Nur, said he had been invited to attend the Obama speech.
Essam el-Erian, a senior official of the banned but tolerated opposition Muslim Brotherhood, said the leader of its parliamentary bloc, Saed el-Katatini, and several of its MPs had also been invited.
Neither said anything about meeting Obama.
"We are astonished with the approach that ignores civil society and political parties," said Nur, who spent three years in jail after losing the 2005 election to veteran President Hosni Mubarak.
The Brotherhood called on Obama to use his visit to criticise Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981, and "the despotic Arab regimes."
"Choosing Cairo is a generous reward for the Mubarak regime, which has not succeeded in the past 25 years in holding, not even one, truly democratic and fair election, unless a genuine critique of his regime while you are in Cairo is at hand," its website said.
Human Rights Watch urged Obama to voice concern over rights, including in Egypt where decades old emergency laws allow for civilians to be tried by military tribunals and where bloggers and other activists can be arrested and tortured.
"President Obama needs to convey a clear message that human rights in the region, including Egypt, are a central concern of his administration," said the New York-based group's Middle East director, Sarah Leah Whitson.
Obama said in a BBC interview that the United States cannot impose its values on other countries, and had to lead by example.
"The danger I think is when the United States or any country thinks that we can simply impose these values on another country with a different history and a different culture."
After meeting Egyptian democracy activists in Washington last month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: "It is in Egypt's interest to move more toward democracy and to exhibit more respect for human rights."
But analysts say the United States is moving away from the Bush administration policy of promoting democracy that caused friction with allies such as Egypt because Washington wants support for other priorities, such as countering Iran's nuclear programme.
"The administration is in a situation in which it needs to re-establish cooperation with governments in the Arab world," said Amr Hamzawy, an analyst with the Carnegie Middle East Centre and an expert on US-Egyptian relations.
"And to re-establish, you have to accept that their behaviour does not correspond to American values such as democracy."
Al-Qaeda's number two, Egyptian-born Ayman al-Zawahiri, also weighed in Tuesday on the US president's visit, saying Muslims had already heard Obama's "bloody messages."
"His bloody messages were received and are still being received by Muslims, and they will not be concealed by public relations campaigns or by farcical visits or elegant words," Zawahiri said in an audiotape monitored by SITE Intelligence Group.
He urged Egyptians to stand as one and withhold a welcome from Obama -- "that criminal who came seeking, with deception, to obtain what he failed to achieve on the ground after the mujahedeen ruined the project of the Crusader America in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia."
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Wednesday, June 3rd 2009
Samer al-Atrush
           


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